By Dr Daisy A. May (MRCVS BVSc), Veterinary Surgeon
We will all be personally familiar with the annoying and unpleasant myriad of symptoms that go hand in hand with a cold; seemingly out of nowhere, your throat begins to scratch and breathing through your nose rapidly becomes a distant, blissful memory.
You feel hot, lethargic, perhaps a little shivery (classic indicators of a fever). Your muscles ache! And stuff tastes funny; you find yourself (or at least, I find myself) adding copious amounts of tabasco sauce to every meal, just to get some flavour past those clogged sinuses.
But did you know your cat can experience a similar affliction?
If you think your cat has a cold, you might be noticing some combination of the following:
- Noisy breathing
- Watery or red eyes
- Nasal discharge (a runny or snotty nose)
- Lethargy (increased time spent sleeping, and reduced activity levels)
- Reduced appetite
- Coughing (a possible sign that pneumonia is developing, which of course is a lot more serious)
- In severe cases, the nasal cavities (nose holes) may become so blocked with mucopurulent discharge (snot) that your cat loses the ability to breathe through their nose and is forced to start mouth breathing. You should see a vet without any delay if this happens to your cat.
Having mentally checked off several symptoms on the above list that apply to your cat, you are now convinced: Fluffy has a cold.
So: what’s causing this?
Causes Of Colds In Cats And Routes Of Infection
The term “cold” is actually something of a misnomer here, because cats cannot catch the common cold virus which affects their human family members (and FYI, nor can you or your human family members catch a cold from your cat).
In fact, the symptoms discussed above are most likely to be associated with a viral condition known as cat flu.
The vast majority (about 80%) of cases of cat flu are caused by one of two viruses: feline herpesvirus, or feline calicivirus. The remaining minority (about 20% of cases) are caused by bacteria such as Chlamydophila felis or Bordetella bronchiseptica (the cause of kennel cough in dogs).
Feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus are transmitted from cat-to-cat by sneezing, saliva or ocular discharge (eye gunk). And it doesn’t necessarily have to be direct transmission: if cat A sneezes on a blanket which cat B snuggles up in shortly after, cat B runs the risk of contracting the cold.
Likewise, if you have been petting cat A and get eye gunk on your hand (eww), and then you go home and immediately pet your cat’s face, you could be the transmission route.
Be aware too, that some cats can carry feline herpesvirus or feline calicivirus without showing any symptoms, but that these individuals may still pose a risk to your pet.
Cats who are up to date with their annual vaccinations will not suffer from cat flu symptoms if they encounter the viral forms of the disease, but they may still be able to transmit the disease to unvaccinated cats. This means if your cat is going into a cattery whilst you’re on holiday, you need to make sure he or she is up to date, and not just rely on the hope that everybody else’s cat will be vaccinated!
Thankfully, many cases of cat flu are mild, however in some instances the condition can be life threatening, particularly for kittens, the very elderly, cats with co-existing health conditions such as feline asthma, or immunocompromised cats (eg, those on steroids or chemotherapy).
Possible complications from severe bouts of cat flu in vulnerable individuals also include permanent damage to the eyes, or even blindness.
Many healthy, adult cats will have built up some natural resistance to cat flu, especially if they were appropriately vaccinated as kittens prior to encountering the virus naturally in the environment.
However, if your cat first encountered a cat flu virus when they were very young (and weren’t protected by vaccination), it’s possible for them to effectively become infected for life.
In these “lifelong” cases, your cat will experience periods of time where they show zero cat flu or cold-like symptoms whilst the virus is lying dormant, but will also experience periods of time when they relapse, and the cold symptoms come back. This phenomenon is called “recrudescence” of the virus: it basically means your cat always has the virus, but doesn’t always show symptoms.
Stress is a common trigger for viral recrudescence. This can mean psychological stress (for example, being put in a cattery whilst you are on holiday, or workmen coming to the house), or it can mean physiological stress (ie, your cat’s body and immune system are strained due to a separate illness, and this triggers the return of the cat flu symptoms).
P.s…did you know Zylkene is one of the only scientifically proven supplements to help reduce stress in cats? And by the way, you can open the capsules and mix the powder inside directly into your cat’s meal, avoiding any dosing difficulties. I would absolutely recommend Zylkene for stress-prone snotty cats, alongside a Feliway diffuser.
My Cat Has A Cold – What Should I Do?
In the minority of cases where the cat flu has a bacterial cause, antibiotics can be effective in treating the disease. In an ideal situation (and if you are happy with the costs involved) your vet can take swabs from your cat’s eyes and throat, and send these to the lab to determine the exact cause (virus or bacterial) of your cat’s cold.
Unfortunately, there is no direct treatment that is known to be effective for cat flu caused by the feline herpesvirus or calicivirus, but luckily most adult cats with healthy immune systems will clear the infection on their own without intervention within a period of 1-2 weeks.
An exception to this – as previously touched upon – is that very young, very elderly or immunocompromised cats may struggle to clear the infection, or suffer from more severe symptoms and/or complications.
If your cat is showing signs of cat flu, you should reassess the situation on a daily basis; in particular, by day four or five of showing cold symptoms, your cat should seem to be on the mend, and their symptoms should be improving. If instead they seem to be getting worse, then you need to take your cat to the vet so that antibiotics can be prescribed.
As we know, the majority of cases are viral, and antibiotics won’t cure a virus…but they will help prevent opportunistic bacteria from taking advantage of your cat’s weakened state and causing pneumonia.
Another sure sign that your cat needs to see a vet without delay is sore, red or closed over eyes. If you notice this at any point, book an urgent vet visit. Cat flu has the potential to cause eye ulcers which can be very serious; some may result in permanent blindness if left untreated. They are also just really painful, so your cat will certainly appreciate rapid treatment.
And finally, if at any point your cat starts coughing, has difficulty breathing or stops eating and/or drinking, book an urgent, same-day vet consult. These are potentially indicators that a much more serious condition – pneumonia – is starting to develop.
What Can My Vet Do To Help?
Your vet may prescribe some combination of the following to help support your cat:
1. Oral/systemic antibiotics
As we have discussed, cat flu is frequently viral and so antibiotics usually won’t cure the disease. However, antibiotics can help protect against secondary bacterial invaders*, thus reducing the risk of pneumonia developing.
And in some cases, for example when your cat’s symptoms are due to the kennel cough bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, antibiotics can be effective in treating the disease.
Commonly prescribed antibiotics include Synulox (amoxicillin-clavulanate), Convenia (cefovecin) and doxycycline.
*Remember: secondary invaders are bacteria that normally would not be “strong enough” to overpower your cat’s immune system and cause any problems, but they have the opportunity to get the upper hand and cause problems in the event that your cat’s immune system is busy fighting off a viral infection such as cat flu.
2. Eye drops
If your cat has developed conjunctivitis and/or an eye ulcer as a result of the disease, then antibiotic eye drops will need to be prescribed. Even when the cause of the eye ulcers is viral, the antibiotics will protect the ulcer against bacteria which would make it worse, whilst it heals.
3. Bisolvon (mucolytic)
Bisolvon is a “mucolytic” medication, meaning that it helps break your cat’s mucus down from thick and gungey into a more watery, runny mucus that is easier for them to clear from their airways.
4. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs)
Most commonly meloxicam is prescribed (sold under the brand names “metacam”, “loxicom”, “rheumocam”, “meloxidyl” and others).
Whilst NSAIDs don’t treat the cause of the infection, they do provide some symptomatic relief because they relieve inflammation, pain and fever. These medications will need to be given with or after food to reduce the risk of unhelpful (or in rare cases dangerous) side effects.
5. Finally, if your cat is very sick with cat flu, or if your vet believes they have developed pneumonia, your cat may need to spend some time admitted at the veterinary hospital until their condition improves.
Commonly during this time they will be treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, intravenous fluids (a drip) and nutritional support (a feeding tube) if necessary.
Home Care For A Cat With A Cold
Sometimes, especially in mild cases, it will be possible to support your cat at home with the following measures whilst they clear the infection.
As mentioned, for many otherwise healthy, adult cats, veterinary attention may not be required.
1. Humidity is helpful
Shut your cat in the bathroom with you whilst you enjoy a long, hot shower or bath (note: obviously don’t put them in the shower or bath!).
Spending even just fifteen minutes inhaling steam will help soften and loosen the mucus-y discharge (“snot”) in your pet’s airways, sinuses and nasal cavities, allowing this mucus to drain better, so that they can breathe a lot more easily through their nose.
It is very important for a cat to be able to breathe through their nose, since cats are really not designed to be mouth breathers! A cat who is mouth-breathing is a cat in distress, and veterinary advice should be sought without delay.
You can also consider using a humidifier; be sure to pick one that is safe to run around pets, like this one:
2. Keep things clean
Keep your cat’s eyes and face clean and dry; regularly wipe away any discharge from around the eyes and noses with cotton wool or a clean flannel which has been dampened with warm water, or even better a warm saline solution.
You can also use pet-safe eye wipes to do the job. I recommend these Vet Approved wipes by Pet Wiz. Wanna know which vet approved them? Me. Unashamedly me. And you should definitely buy them if you’re looking for a good value, effective-but-gentle wipe to keep your pet’s face clean with on a daily basis.
Also be sure to clean their food and water bowls thoroughly, at least once daily, using hot water and dish soap (rinsed thoroughly).
3. Nutritional support at home
Offer frequent, tempting and easily digestible meals. As anybody who has even walked past a bakery can attest to, sense of smell is very closely linked to desire to eat (or lack of desire to eat). You find that your cat is more likely to eat if you warm their food a little first; warming the food will make it “stinkier” (in a good way!)
You can also apply a little high calorie multivitamin paste to your cat’s paws. His or her innate kitty cat desire to remain clean will kick in, and your cat will clean their feet thus licking up and ingesting the paste.
Now that’s clever.
4. Keep them warm and comfortable
So that they can rest up and focus on healing.
Can Cat Colds Be Prevented?
The best protection you can provide your cat against viral cat flu is to have them vaccinated at eight weeks old, before they leave the home or come into contact with any other cats. The cat’s mother should also ideally have been vaccinated (prior to pregnancy).
To become protected, kittens or unvaccinated cats will need a course of two vaccines 3-4 weeks apart. They will then need a yearly booster to ensure they remain protected.
Whilst immunity will last longer than 12 months for some individuals, there is no way to tell how long immunity is lasting for your cat without having blood tests done.
Some pet owners may prefer to have a blood tests done at the 12-month mark instead, to check whether their cat needs the booster at that time, or whether they are able to go a bit longer in between vaccinations.
Once your cat has contracted viral cat flu, vaccination will not clear the disease nor protect them against it.
My Cat Has A Cold – Is It Contagious?
We mentioned at the start of the article that you cannot catch a cold from your cat, and vice versa.
However, cat flu is very contagious between cats. So, if your cat has cold symptoms, you need to make sure they are kept inside the home, and kept away from other cats.
You should also wash your hands thoroughly and ideally change your clothes after petting or cuddling your cat, before you touch any other cats…this helps keep everybody’s pets safe 🙂
As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases and will receive a commission when you clink on my links and then make purchases. This helps me continue to be able to provide you with accurate, scientific and free pet care and veterinary information without the need to transition from vanlife to actually homeless. Thanks for your support <3